The current political season is unique in many ways. We are seeing a historically unprecedented race for the president of the United States - with the first-ever female candidate nominated by a major party, in Hillary Clinton, and with a highly unique, somewhat-unorthodox Republican candidate in former-reality-TV star and renowned businessman Donald Trump. I have never in my life seen so much passion and dialog regarding a presidential election.
As is often the case in an election, much attention is being paid to the personality traits of the candidates. Is Hillary honest? Is she empathetic? And what about Donald? Is he intelligent? Is he altruistic and community-oriented? Is he kind?
On this point, some recent analysts, including the Washington Post’s Robert Kagan and Vanity Fair’s Keith Olbermann, have questioned whether Donald Trump is sane - which, of course, is a pretty important consideration in determining the president of the United States.
As someone trained as a quantitatively oriented personality and social psychologist, I thought it’d be useful for me to chime in on this point. Kagan and Olbermann are both very bright thinkers and writers, to be sure. But perhaps I could, from my perspective as a professional psychological researcher, help shed light on the nature of Donald Trump’s character.
Is Donald Trump Insane?
Keith Olbermann’s recent analysis of Trump’s personality is well-researched, thoughtful, and entertaining. However, as a professional psychological researcher, I need to clarify a major conceptual point in his analysis. Olbermann essentially asks if Trump is sane by determining how Trump would (or should) score on a measure of “psychopathy.” The assumption here is that being “high on psychopathy” (which, perhaps not surprisingly, is where Olbermann’s analysis of Trump lands) is equivalent to meaning “is insane.” In fact, in the parlance of modern empirical psychology, this is not exactly the case.
Psychopathy (see Jonason, Kaufman, Webster, & Geher, 2013) is a personality trait dimension that revolves around the tendency to genuinely not care about others. Someone who scores high in psychopathy reports feeling little to no empathy for others along with demonstrating little to no care for what happens to folks other than themselves. While this is not a fully flattering portrait of a person, to be sure, it’s not the same as being diagnosable via the DSM.
This said, in listening to Olbermann’s analysis of Trump in terms of the trait dimension of psychopathy, I got to wondering. In the current landscape of research in personality psychology, psychopathy is famous as an element of a broader cluster of personality traits known as the Dark Triad (see Jonason, Kaufman, Webster, & Geher, 2013). Olbermann makes a very strong case that Trump fits the psychopathic element of the Dark Triad. The question here is this: Does Trump fit the full suite of characteristics that underlie the Dark Triad?
What is the Dark Triad?
Three core personality trait dimensions that underlie the Dark Triad are:
An interesting thing about the Dark Triad is that these are actually pretty distinct concepts conceptually. Not caring about others (psychopathy) isn’t inherently connected with caring too much about oneself (narcissism), for instance. And neither trait is conceptually and directly related to the tendency to manipulate others for one’s own gain (Machiavellianism). However, as described in a recent book that I wrote with Scott Barry Kaufman, Mating Intelligence Unleashed, these traits do, in fact, often “cling together empirically” - that is, scoring high in one of these domains is often predictive of scoring high in the two other domains. In our book, Scott and I argue that these traits cling together largely because this suite of characteristics work together to effectively advance the goals of the individual. Thus, being high in one of these traits alone may confer few benefits to the individual - however, being high in all three ends up, for better or worse, being a strong and documented catalyst for success in many life domains. As we argue in our book, this fact helps explain the “appeal of the bad boy.”
Does Donald Trump Show Signs of Being High in the Dark Triad?
So the question before us now, then, is whether Donald Trump fits the template of someone who is “high in the Dark Triad of personality” and, if so, might this help explain his extraordinarily high levels of success in so many life domains?
* Is Trump psychopathic?
Of course, as with any of these questions, the answer is something of a judgment call and needs to be considered in such context. This said, I think there are plenty of examples to draw upon that show a lack of concern for others on the part of Donald Trump. Several comments he has made about Muslims, in a large-scale manner, for instance, have shown something of an inability to empathize with individual Muslims. His recent highly publicized arguments regarding the late and highly decorated Army Capt. Humayun Khan and Khan’s family, for instance, were seen as questionable by many. By going after Khan’s mother and father, who had obviously suffered enormously due to the loss of their middle son, a case could be made that Trump lacked empathy and judgment in his public social interactions. This example seems to fit with the definition of psychopathy very well. A Google search that I just conducted on the terms "Trump" and "Psychopath," by the way, just turned up approximately 613,000 results.
* Is Trump a narcissist?
A Google search that I just conducted of the terms “Trump” and “narcissist” just turned up approximately 744,000 results. That’s almost a million. In fact, much has been made about the narcissistic tendencies of Donald Trump. Clearly he has a tendency to name things after himself, which is something of a sign. Every time I drive into NYC via the West Side Highway, I pass Trump Towers of the west side - including hundreds of high-end properties found in a series of large conspicuous buildings. You can’t really miss them! There’s Trump steak, Trump wine, Trump Taj Mahal, etc. I think even Donald himself might have to admit to having at least a splash of narcissism.
* Is Trump Machiavellian and manipulative?
To be fair, being manipulative is, perhaps unfortunately, nearly a standard element of modern-day politics. So it’s not like Trump is the only manipulative candidate out there. This said, do we have evidence of Trump manipulating others for his own gain? A Google search that I just conducted with the terms “Trump” and “manipulative” just turned up approximately 490,000 results. Clearly someone has thought about this before. Perhaps the most telling example of Trump’s manipulative nature that I’ve come across is found in a Washington Post article that summarizes several instances of Trump masquerading as his own (reportedly contrived) publicist named “John Barron.” Barron-but-really-Trump defended many of Trump’s actions (over the phone) regarding various scandals in communications with such high-profile media outlets as People Magazine. This seems like something of a textbook case of Machiavellian behavior - manipulating others for one’s own gain in a dishonest and selfish manner.
As Scott Barry Kaufman and I have written about in detail (2013), there are multiple paths to greatness and success in life. Many reach the top by being conspicuously caring - demonstrating a lifelong dedication to their broader communities and to helping others in their social worlds. Think Mother Theresa. On the other hand, there are relatively dark ways to reach the top in nearly all human social contexts. Displaying characteristics of the Dark Triad - being uncaring about others, self-absorbed, and manipulative - for better or worse, seems to also be an effective route to the top. It may not be a nice approach to social life, but it can be a successful one - particularly if others in the community allow this kind of strategy to succeed. Does Donald Trump demonstrate the features of the Dark Triad? Based on my expert opinion having published extensively in this area of psychology, I think the answer is this: Absolutely and unequivocally.
References and further reading
Jonason, P. K., Kaufman, S. B., Webster, G. D, & Geher, G. (2013). What lies beneath the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen: Varied relations with the Big Five. Individual Differences Research, 11, 81-90.
Olbermann, K. (2016). Could Donald Trump pass a sanity test? Vanity Fair article; video
Acknowledgment: Thanks to Miryam Antunez De Mayolo for inspiring me to write this piece!